While talking with student voters, 26th District candidates differ on environmental, union issues

Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, and Bill Helsley, the Democratic challenger face each other in the Nov. 2 election. (File photo)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

The two candidates vying to represent Harrisonburg in the House of Delegates, offered similar philosophies about parents’ involvement in their children’s education but disagreed over a law regarding union dues as well as over government’s role in spurring environmental changes. 

During a traveling town hall event Monday that made stops at three residence hall locations on James Madison University’s campus, Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, and his Democratic challenger Bill Helsley introduced themselves to students and responded to their questions. Some students asked about economic issues, others quizzed the candidates on what they’ll do for the environment. And other questions touched on what parents’ involvement should be in their children’s education.

One student in the audience at JMU’s Student Success Center, mentioned an advertisement for Helsley’s campaign which criticized the actions of Democrats in Richmond on Medicaid, to which he stated his belief that both parties were doing a poor job of managing social welfare programs.

“One of the problems I have with the government is we have too many people … in office, who are owned by big pharma corporations and so forth,” Helsley said. “So yeah, I think that both sides can do a better job. If I’m fortunate enough to be elected, I think I’ll probably be one of the first unbossed and unbought people to go down to Richmond.”

Helsley went on to acknowledge that Democrats’ recent expansion of Medicaid now allows it to apply to over 400,000 people who were without health insurance, “which is a heck of a big thing that’s helped lots and lots of people,” Helsley said. 

“And I think delegate Wilt voted against that,” he added. 

Wilt said he was glad that “my opponent acknowledges that, to a degree, Richmond is broken.”

“And so what we’re seeing is that a lot of policies are coming from not much short of a dictatorship,” Wilt said. “You’ve got a Democrat in a governor’s mansion. They control the Senate and have complete control of the House of Delegates. And so they’ve just run roughshod over the state, just doing whatever it is they want to do, enacting all types of legislation, without regards [to] the consequences.”

Wilt also pointed to a situation in Loudoun County in which a male high school student has been accused of assaulting two girls, including one in a girl’s bathroom in May and another in an empty classroom earlier this month. The case has only fueled protests against policies aimed at allowing transgender students to use a bathrooom for the gender with which they identify. 

Wilt said he was concerned that instead of taking action after the first assault accusation in May, the school system sent him to another school, where a similar incident occurred.

Wilt said he considers it an example of short-sighted policies that come out of a one party rule, and while he and his constituents tried to work across the aisle to help them achieve their goals, “they were all in, and they thought they knew best.”

“We warned them against this type of incident that would happen, and sure enough it’s come home to us,” Wilt said.

With about two weeks to go before the Nov. 2 election, it was an opportunity for Wilt — first elected in 2010 — and Helsley, an attorney making his first bid for the state legislature, to establish their differences and court younger voters. 

The traveling town hall event, sponsored by JMU Civic, attracted more than 30 students at it’s first stop at JMU’s Student Success Center and between 20-30 at second stop at the Grace Street Apartments. 

On education

Both Helsley and Wilt agreed that parental involvement in their childrens’ education is crucial, but creating the curriculum should be left up to the experts.

“I firmly believe that parents should be involved, and while I say that, I don’t know that our parents, probably very few, are qualified to write curriculum, but they darn sure oughta know what their child’s being taught,” Wilt said.

Helsley said his mother had a 10th grade education, but she made a substantial effort to be included in his education process, and that it “makes for better and more educated children.” 

“But like Mr. Wilt says, and I agree with him, most parents can’t write the curriculum,” Helsley said. “Curriculum is written by those who are experts, and those experts are picked typically by the elected officials.”

On right to work

One student at the Grace Street Apartments asked about repealing Virginia’s right-to-work law, which bars companies from requiring its employees pay union dues as a condition of employment. Helsley said he fully supports the law, but he thinks “we have to address the persons who are getting a free lunch, so to speak.”

“Whenever a union secures a union contract, pay increases, you get better healthcare, they give you due process if your supervisor tries to terminate you,” Helsley said. “Unions may spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to negotiate those rights, and the person who didn’t join the union pays nothing towards that, but they get all the benefits from the union contract.”

Wilt said that right to choose whether to be an active dues-paying union member is a fundamental right workers should have, and he said repealing the law is “the complete wrong way to go.”

On the environment

Helsley emphasized the importance of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. 

“We need to incentivize electric vehicles and so forth, so that we can reduce the carbon that we have in the atmosphere,” he said. 

Based on the projections, he said it’s unlikely Earth can sustain life a hundred years from now, “unless we do something, and do something soon.”

But the transition needs to be orderly, he said.

“We can’t just turn on a light switch and make this happen,” Helsley said. “But we certainly, with governmental incentives, can begin the process and make the process speed up in a responsible way, so we don’t put millions of people out of work.”

He also said anyone who loses a job should be offered training to help them switch to a new career.

“I think delegate Wilt voted against the Virginia Clean Economy Act, and that’s a difference,” he said. 

Passed in March of 2020, the VA Clean Economy Act created certain clean energy standards and seeks to eliminate carbon emissions by calling for generating 100% of Virginia’s energy from renewable sources by 2050.

Wilt defended his stance saying he considered the measure to be similar to the California Green New Deal, and that he was troubled by Virginia “modeling itself in the legislative branch about, ‘Hey, we’re going to be like California.’”

He said he was concerned about energy companies passing additional costs on to households in order to adhere to provisions of the new law. The Virginia Corporation Commission in August, for instance, approved a rate increase from Dominion Energy.

“Folks, we talk about how we’re concerned about citizens and what they have to pay in their healthcare and stuff, so we’re just going to slop this down on top of them without even a thought?” Wilt said. “I mean that’s unconscionable in my opinion.”

During his time as a delegate, Wilt said he has supported community solar projects and increasing net metering, in which people who have solar panels generating electricity can earn credit toward their energy bills. 

“But it has to be incremental so we don’t do these things” that can lead to rate increases on people’s energy bills, he said.

“It has to grow,” Wilt said. “In a free market, one day the citizens are going to demand this. And anything we do that we artificially create, it has disastrous effects, and that’s what’s going to happen.”

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